Merkel's Final Act

German flag is seen outside the German lower house of parliament Bundestag before the election of a new chancellor in Berlin, Germany, March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

International security will be a crucial part of how Merkel’s last term will be remembered.

May-June 2018

If this looks like a caricature of the German security debates of ten years ago, that’s because it is—if you listen to parties’ discussions and read their position papers. It does not, however, fully reflect popular opinion or the reality of Germany’s international leadership. Thousands of German troops are deployed abroad, including in Afghanistan, Iraq and Mali. Billions of additional euros are being spent on re-equipping the military, development aid, stabilization and humanitarian action. The strategic implications of these changes have not yet become a subject of debate within the major political parties.

UNLIKE WHEN her previous terms began, in 2005, 2009 and 2013, international security will be a crucial part of how Merkel’s last term will be remembered. Displacement and migration have become first-order political issues. For parties that are committed to the rule of law and an open society, political survival depends on their ability to defend themselves and their societies from illiberal demagogues. That imperative has brought not just the management of refugees, migration and immigration, but also the prevention of avoidable displacement—a preventive security policy that utilizes diplomacy, defense and development assets to maximum effect—to the top of the next government’s agenda. Of course, climate change alone will ensure that the causes of displacement are only going to grow. All the more important, then, to develop convincing strategies to better prevent avoidable displacement.

In this, Germany’s security and economic interests lead to the same conclusion as its values and historical responsibility. Peace and security around Europe have become a decisive political issue for governing Germany. And, together with Paris, Berlin will have to move quickly. The window of opportunity to start building a real European preventive security policy is closing fast, as elections to the European Parliament are scheduled for 2019.

TO HAVE identified international security as a “core task of foreign policy,” as Heiko Maas did in his very first internal speech, is a good start. The key problem that has blocked progress on joint European security efforts so far is the fundamental divide between its eastern and southern member states. For the eastern Europeans, the Russia threat is most urgent. They seek military solidarity from their EU partners. For the southern Europeans, the Middle East and Africa are closer; they continue to carry the bulk of the refugee burden. They want their EU partners to do more in terms of conflict management.

Germany is the only European country with the political weight and legitimacy, as well as the financial means, to bridge this divide. Only if Germany invests in both its eastern and southern neighbors’ priorities, for defense and conflict management alike, will it be possible to build a truly joint European security effort that protects everyone equally. This is Germany’s leadership challenge regarding European security in the coming years.

Germany has proven its readiness to spend more and take necessary risks; if the economy continues to thrive, it will have the means to underpin this crucial role. What is missing is an urgent security update to its political operating system. In Berlin, the notion of “security” remains almost entirely confined to defense and the military, automatically privileging territorial and alliance defense, and thus the east over the south. Balancing the two pillars of a modern security policy—conflict management and territorial defense—would be the first step in getting ready to lead.

For the first time, the coalition agreement has found the right language. Spending pledges for diplomacy, development and defense are framed as part of “a comprehensive, joint peace and security policy.” However, as long as conflict management is treated as an afterthought while alliance defense absorbs most of the attention, no comprehensive peace and security policy can emerge. How is Berlin going to have a real strategy for Mali or Iraq with just one or two political analysts per embassy in Bamako or Baghdad, and with one-third of its military helicopters broken while another third is late for delivery?

FIXING THESE shortfalls will require more than just putting more money into the same tools. The last government began to rebuild the Bundeswehr to be able, in the future, to provide the backbone of alliance defense in Europe. Solidarity with Germany’s eastern neighbors requires as much; it would be arrogant and offensive to belittle their fears.